Joining the ranks of franchises being re-purposed to make a spivvy buck on a familiar name is ‘Dad’s Army’. Joe Walker would be proud. But the difference here is that this film is targeted squarely at the original audience rather than a new generation.
The combination of gentle humour with the occasional cheek of 70’s innuendo means today’s most often-targeted audience will find little of interest here (that audience being the sci-fi and comic book fans used to punch-ups and overtly crude humour who have ‘Deadpool’ to look forward to next week). Instead, the film-makers are banking on a wave of pure nostalgia for the original sitcom, which pointedly bookends the film. Early on there’s a neat recreation of the ‘You Have Been Watching’ end credits of the original, here given context. And there’s no sign of Michael Bublé warbling about Mr Brown going orf to town on the 8:21; the original theme is present and correct to finish the picture. It’s the bits in between where you’ll find the problems.
There’s a pretty even split between the jokes that hit and those that miss. One of the major missteps was showing Godfrey relieving himself on-screen, a joke that was always far funnier when only alluded to. Toby Jones is given the bulk of the physical comedy and he handles it capably. There’s some business with a revolving chalkboard that would feel right at home in any episode of the original. But that’s the main issue here. The film doesn’t feel like a sampling of the best elements of the classic show, more like it’s taking an average of the whole series – average comedy, average story, wholly unremarkable. And that’s not what a film adaption should be; it should be a definitive statement about everything the source material is, communicating why it was a classic in the first place. But the film throws in a bit of everything; catchphrases appear with no context, the Home Guard are crowded out by the inclusion of minor characters from the ‘Dad’s Army’ canon like Mainwaring’s controversially visible wife and her militarised housewives, Private Pike’s girlfriend Vera, and Private Godfrey’s sisters. And if that sounds like a nice evening out of the cast in regards to gender, the film still ends on a pointed still image of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ backside with ‘The End’ slapped underneath, so it’s quite a stretch to call it feminist. The result of all this is that characters like Warden Hodges turn up but are given nothing to do, giving the feel of a whistle-stop tour from one member of the sitcom’s extended cast to another. It’s an odd choice to be as inclusive as possible in this regard, and yet the final action sequence doesn’t even have the characters in their iconic uniforms when they’re doing some actual soldiering.
So if it doesn’t impress as an adaption, how does it do as a standalone film? The biggest criticism here is that there are swathes where it forgets that it’s a comedy. These are due to the story arc given to Bill Nighy’s Sergeant Wilson where he reconnects with an old flame in the form of Zeta-Jones’ Rose Winters, and the scenes between them are played completely straight. Giving depth to characters is important of course, especially when you have to do the work of nine years’ worth of TV work in ninety minutes. But the point of a comedy is that you’re meant to communicate depth of character through jokes. Breaking up the comedy with genuinely romantic scenes like these this gives a feel of a film going back further even than the 70’s , especially with some of the positively noir-ish cinematography framing Nighy and Zeta-Jones.
While the casting is near pitch-perfect (the only complaint is Tom Courtenay pitching his Corporal Jones closer to doddery than excitable, losing the joy of Clive Dunn’s perfect juxtaposition of the two), even that isn’t enough to elevate the material they’re given. The characters remain archetypes; at one point Frazer moons the enemy because, you know, he’s Scottish. But the decision to keep things simple was clearly made early on and in the end there’s enough affection for the original to keep you going, even if it could be better deployed. And the result is, in keeping with the theme, kind of familiar. Clumsy and a little hopeless, but well-meaning and just about gets the job done in the end. ‘Dad’s Army’ really is back.